Seattle, Dec 20 (AP/UNB) — An extremely rare tornado that touched down west of Seattle was the strongest to hit Washington state since 1986, the National Weather Service said Wednesday.
A Weather Service storm team surveyed the damage just south of Port Orchard, Washington, and rated the twister an Ef2 on the Enhanced Fujita scale with top wind speeds of up to 130 mph (210 kph). The scale rates an Ef2 as "significant."
In five minutes Tuesday afternoon, the twister's 1.4 mile-path (2.3 kilometers) tore roofs off homes, shattered windows and toppled large fir trees, but no injuries have been reported.
John Mueller's home was among those most severely damaged.
He told KOMO-TV that he was at work at a shipyard when he recognized his home in a video of the tornado on social media.
"If I could describe the house, it would be roofless," Mueller said. "The entire upstairs is gone. There's 2x4 and 4x4s sticking out of the walls. Glass shattered everywhere. The downstairs is just full of water and broken glass...I think (the tornado) landed on top of the house."
Washington state averages 2.5 tornadoes a year, but December tornadoes average a minute fraction, the Weather Service said. Most tornadoes in Washington are rated EF-0s that cause minor damage, Weather Service hydrologist Brent Bower said.
The Kitsap County Sheriff's office called the damage "catastrophic." Dozens of structures were affected. Fire officials were trying to complete an initial damage assessment by Wednesday night.
Deputy Scott Wilson said the twister caused "a lot of chaos."
"It's traumatic, especially as we approach the Christmas season," Wilson said.
Kitsap County Search and Rescue workers with trained dogs checked for people who may have been injured or stranded but found none.
Other emergency crews still inspecting homes were finding gas leaks in damaged structures, the sheriff's office said Wednesday.
Power had been restored by Wednesday to much of the affected area with the exception of the most severely damaged homes, the sheriff's office said. Some roads remained closed.
Port Orchard is about 15 miles (24 kilometers) west of Seattle, across Puget Sound on the Kitsap Peninsula.
Jerusalem, Dec 20 (AP/UNB) — Israel on Wednesday urged a special session of the U.N. Security Council to condemn the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and designate it a terrorist organization following the discovery of cross-border tunnels stretching into Israel.
Following a stormy session, the council took no action on the Israeli request, though several members sided with Israel and expressed concerns over Hezbollah's violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution that ended a 2006 war between the bitter enemies.
Israel has previously urged the U.N.'s most powerful body to condemn Hezbollah, but has never succeeded because of divisions in the council, and there was no move Wednesday to circulate a draft resolution on the tunnels. A key reason for the lack of council action is that some members would insist that Israeli violations of the 2006 resolution also be included in a resolution.
Early this month, Israel announced the discovery of what it said was a network of cross-border Hezbollah attack tunnels and launched an open-ended military operation to destroy them. It so far has exposed four tunnels that it says were to be used to infiltrate and attack Israeli towns and abduct Israeli civilians.
Ahead of Wednesday's debate, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the council to condemn Hezbollah.
"This is not merely an act of aggression. This is an act of war," Netanyahu said. "The people of Lebanon have to understand that Hezbollah is putting them in jeopardy and we expect Lebanon to take action against this."
At the United Nations, Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon showed an aerial photograph of what Israel called a "private compound" near the border that concealed a tunnel. He also presented an aerial photo showing what he said were weapons-storage sites concealed in a border village.
He said Israel had given the U.N. peacekeeping mission, known as UNIFIL, "precise information" about the tunnels that was shared with the Lebanese army. He accused the Lebanese army of then relaying the information to Hezbollah, allowing it to try to conceal the tunnels.
"Lebanese army officials are working for Hezbollah, while UNIFIL is not working to fulfill its mandate in the region in the necessary manner," Danon said.
The U.N.'s peacekeeping chief, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, said UNIFIL had confirmed four tunnels, including two that cross the frontier into Israel.
Calling them a "serious violation" of the 2006 cease-fire resolution, Lacroix said UNIFIL is "acting judiciously" to complete its investigation and to work with both sides to disable all tunnels that cross the border.
"This is a matter of serious concern," he said.
Lebanon's ambassador, Amal Mudallali, said her country took the matter seriously and remains committed to the cease-fire resolution.
"This commitment is not rhetoric, and these are not mere words, because this commitment is in the interest of my country and my people," she said, adding that the Lebanese army is "deployed heavily" in the south to make sure the cease-fire is honored.
But she also accused Israel of repeatedly violating the resolution by having its air force routinely fly through Lebanese skies.
"If we were to call for a Security Council meeting every time Israel had violated Lebanon's sovereignty since 2006, you will be in a 24/7 shift to address them," she said.
Several council members joined Israel in condemning the tunnels. Sweden said Hezbollah's military capabilities pose a "clear risk" to regional stability. The Netherlands strongly condemned the tunnel activities as a "flagrant violation" of Israeli sovereignty and international law.
Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador, Vladimir Safronkov, stressed Moscow's "historically friendly relations" with Israel and Lebanon in his speech to the council. Like many other council members, he called for calm and dialogue as well as an end to "emotional polemics."
Safronkov said Russia takes note of UNIFIL's preliminary conclusion on the violation of the 2006 resolution over the tunnels. But he quickly referred to Israeli violations as well.
"We see that all violations of the provisions in this Security Council resolution should cease, from either side — all violations," Safronkov said. "We cannot have a selective approach to implementation of the resolution."
He said Israel has a right to prevent illegal incursions into its territory but expressed hope its activities "will not go against the grain" of the 2006 resolution.
Hezbollah, a powerful organization that acts independently in Lebanon, has yet to comment on the Israeli discovery.
Israel has long called for a crackdown on the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a heavily armed mini-army that is believed to possess an arsenal of some 150,000 rockets that can reach nearly all of Israel.
In recent years, Hezbollah has been bogged down in fighting in Syria on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad's government. But with that civil war winding down, Israeli security officials fear Hezbollah is refocusing its attention on Israel.
Though it appeared the Lebanese army was unaware of the Hezbollah tunnels, Netanyahu said, they know about it now and must neutralize them for their own country's sake. Israel holds the Lebanese government responsible for the actions of Hezbollah.
"The fact that the Lebanese army is doing nothing means that they are either unable or unwilling or both to do anything about this. But it doesn't absolve Lebanon's culpability," he said. "My message is: Hezbollah is putting you in great jeopardy."
Israel also accuses Hezbollah of using private homes to store weapons or other military activity. Netanyahu called these actions a "double war crime" since it threatened to harm Israeli civilians and put Lebanese civilians in danger as well.
On Wednesday, the Israeli military escorted reporters along the Israel-Lebanon border to the site of one of the tunnels found in recent weeks near the town of Metula. Heavy mist and rain nearly obscured the Lebanese villas perched on the mountains overlooking Israeli army bulldozers and tractors trundling through the mud.
Hezbollah, Lebanese and Palestinian flags fluttered on the opposite side of the border as Israeli soldiers lowered cameras 26 meters (85 feet) into the mouth of a rock-hewn tunnel they said was the first exposed in "Operation Northern Shield" emanating from the Lebanese village of Kafr Kela just a few hundred meters (yards) away.
Washington, Dec 20 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump is pulling all 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, officials announced Wednesday as the president suddenly declared victory over the Islamic State, contradicting his own experts' assessments and sparking surprise and outrage from his party's lawmakers who called his action rash and dangerous.
The U.S. began airstrikes in Syria in 2014, and ground troops moved in the following year to battle the Islamic State, or ISIS, and train Syrian rebels in a country torn apart by civil war. Trump abruptly declared their mission accomplished in a tweet.
"We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency," he said as Vice President Mike Pence met with top leaders at the Pentagon. U.S. officials said many details of the troop withdrawal had not yet been finalized, but they expect American forces to be out by mid-January.
Later Wednesday, Trump posted a video on Twitter in which he said is "heartbreaking" to have to write letters and make calls to the loved ones of those killed in battle. "Now it's time for our troops to come back home," he said.
A senior administration official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, said Trump made the decision based on his belief that U.S. troops have no role in Syria beyond combatting Islamic State, whose fighters are now believed to hold about 1 percent of the territory they did at the peak of their power.
The president informed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of his decision in a telephone call, the official said. Turkey has recently warned that it would launch combat operations across its southern border into northeastern Syria against Kurdish forces who have been allied with the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State.
Trump's declaration of victory was far from unanimous, and officials said U.S. defense and military leaders were trying to dissuade him from ordering the withdrawal right up until the last minute. His decision immediately triggered demands from Congress — including leading Republicans — for more information and a formal briefing on the matter. Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, just returned from Afghanistan, said he was meeting with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis late in the day.
Graham, typically a Trump backer, said he was "blindsided" by the report and called the decision "a disaster in the making." He said, "The biggest winners in this are ISIS and Iran."
The decision will fulfill Trump's long-stated goal of bringing troops home from Syria, but military leaders have pushed back for months, arguing that the IS group remains a threat and could regroup in Syria's long-running civil war. U.S. policy has been to keep troops in place until the extremists are eradicated.
The senior administration official said American forces would still work with allies to fight the Islamic State or other extremists in the country but gave no details on what that might entail.
Another official said it still is not clear to defense leaders whether U.S. airstrikes against IS insurgents will continue in Syria after the American troops leave. U.S. military officials worry that American-backed Kurdish troops will be targeted by Turkey and the Syrian government, leaving no ally on the ground to help direct the strikes.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who remains concerned about Iranian efforts in the area, reacted in noncommittal fashion after talking with Trump by telephone.
"This is, of course, an American decision," he said. No matter what, he said, "we will safeguard the security of Israel and protect ourselves from this arena."
Leading Republican senators reacted with displeasure to the news.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said the withdrawal would be a "grave error" and that Kurdish fighters will stop fighting the Islamic State when they must confront Turkish troops crossing the border into Syria.
"This is a bad idea because it goes against the fight against ISIS and potentially helps ISIS," he said, warning it could trigger a broader conflict in the region.
Just last week, the U.S. special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, said U.S. troops would remain in Syria even after the Islamic State was driven from its strongholds.
"I think it's fair to say Americans will remain on the ground after the physical defeat of the caliphate, until we have the pieces in place to ensure that that defeat is enduring," McGurk told reporters on Dec. 11. "Nobody is declaring a mission accomplished. Defeating a physical caliphate is one phase of a much longer-term campaign."
And two weeks ago Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. still has a long way to go in training local Syrian forces to prevent a resurgence of IS and stabilize the country. He said it will take 35,000 to 40,000 local troops in northeastern Syria to maintain security over the long term, but only about 20 percent of that number have been trained.
Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, said in September that the U.S. would keep a military presence in Syria as long as Iran was active there. "We're not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias," he said.
James Stavridis, a former Navy admiral who served as top NATO commander, tweeted Wednesday that "Pulling troops out of Syria in an ongoing fight is a big mistake. Like walking away from a forest fire that is still smoldering underfoot. Big winner is Iran, then Russia, then Assad. Wrong move."
The withdrawal decision, however, is likely to be viewed positively by Turkey, and comes following several conversations between Trump and Erdogan over the past several weeks. The two spoke at the G-20 summit in Argentina and in a phone call last Friday.
Erdogan said Monday he had gotten "positive answers" from Trump on the situation in northeast Syria where he has been threatening a new operation against the American-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters.
Just hours before the withdrawal decision became public, the State Department announced late Tuesday that it had approved the sale of a $3.5 billion Patriot missile defense system to Turkey. The Turks had complained that the U.S. was slow walking requests for air defenses, and they had signed a deal with Russia to buy a sophisticated system in a deal that Washington and Ankara's other NATO partners strongly opposed.
Completion of that deal with Russia for the S-400 system would have opened up Turkey to possible U.S. sanctions and driven a major wedge between the allies. It was not immediately clear if there was a connection between the Patriot sale and the decision on U.S. troops.
Although the withdrawal decision doesn't signal an end to the American-led coalition's fight against the Islamic State, it will likely erode U.S. leadership of that 31-nation effort. The administration had been preparing to host a meeting of coalition foreign ministers early next year.
"The bottom line is that the American withdrawal from eastern Syria will create a power vacuum that will lead to a new phase of international conflict in Syria," said Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria expert at the Institute for the Study of War.
She predicted that the Russians, the Iranians, Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Turks will compete for the terrain and resources previously under U.S. control "at the expense of" the Syrian Kurds who have partnered with U.S. forces against IS.
Nepal, Dec 20 (AP/UNB) — Nepal's government has stopped eight Italian contractors from leaving the Himalayan country in an effort to complete a critical but much delayed water supply project for the capital.
Nepalese officials and the Italian contractors met again on Wednesday, but no agreement was reached, said Ministry of Water Supplies spokesman Shankar Prasad Subedi.
A statement from the ministry said the eight contractors from the Italian company Cooperativa Muratori Cementisti Ravenna are being kept under strict surveillance by the authorities in Kathmandu because they had information that the contractors might be attempting to leave Nepal.
Nepalese officials are worried that contractors from the financially troubled company may attempt to flee, leaving the project unfinished.
Officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to reporters said airport immigration authorities have been instructed to not allow them to leave the country. However, no official notice has been issued for the prohibition.
The Italians have been working on the project for the past four years, but the Melamchi Drinking Water project is nearly 2 decades old. It is supposed to bring drinking water to Kathmandu, the capital, where households have water for only two hours every five days.
The project has been delayed due to political instability in Nepal, as well as a devastating 2015 earthquake. A monthslong economic blockade by India leading to severe shortages of fuel and construction materials also brought the project to a halt.
Nepal is mostly covered with mountains that have rivers, but Kathmandu faces a severe water problem. Most residents there have to depend on water trucks to bring water to their homes.
The Melamchi project is being constructed through funding from the Asian Development Bank and the Japanese government.
London, Dec 20 (AP/UNB) — London's Gatwick Airport shut down late Wednesday while officials urgently investigated reports that two drones were flying above the airfield.
The airport suspended all flights, causing severe disruptions just days before Christmas during one of the heaviest travel times of the year.
Police and aviation authorities were still investigating early Thursday as incoming flights were diverted to other locations in Britain and nearby countries.
Passengers complained on Twitter that their flights had landed at London Heathrow, Manchester, Birmingham and other cities. Other flights were sent to France and the Netherlands.
One traveler whose flight was diverted tweeted that passengers were not being told when they could continue to their destination.
Gatwick advised travelers via Twitter to check flights scheduled for Thursday before heading to the airport. It also advised anyone planning to pick up arriving passengers to check first.
Any problem at Gatwick causes a ripple effect throughout Britain and continental Europe, particularly during a holiday period when the air traffic control system is under strain.
It is a busy airport 27 miles (43 kilometers) south of London, hosting a variety of short- and long-haul flights and serving as a major hub for the budget carrier easyJet.
Gatwick normally operates throughout the night but the number of flights is restricted because of noise limitations. The airport website says it usually handles 18 to 20 flights overnight during the winter months.
Gatwick said in a statement that it apologized for the inconvenience but had to put place safety first.
There have been occasional reports of drones nearly hitting commercial airliners in the London area in recent years.
Strong sales of small consumer drones have led to repeated warnings about a possible threat to scheduled flights.